Developing hydroponic systems for vegetables sown at high density
Priority AxisTechnological and Social Innovation
Project budget2 857 450 €
ERDF amount1 714 470 €
The program area has a strong focus on stimulating sustainable, resource-efficient production through technological improvement. Innovative production improvements by growers by introduction of novel hydroponic cultivation systems offers great potential to produce high-quality crops with reduced environmental impact. Hydroponics benefits growers by increased productivity, by improved efficient management of crop cultivation while controlling diseases that influence yield and revenue. More than 90% of greenhouse cultivation of fruit vegetables has shifted to hydroponics; leafy vegetables grown at low plant density (e.g. lettuce) are starting to implement systems. However, no straightforward solutions are available for vegetable crops traditionally densely sown in rows in the field. Investing in a novel hydroponic system developed in co-creation with the stakeholders and adequate technology transfer to adapt skills for implementation will therefore be a key output from Hy4Dense.
The overall objective is to develop a soil-free cultivation system to grow densely sown crops (such as lamb’s lettuce, watercress, spinach or rocket) by upgrading existing early stage prototypes to efficient hydroponic growing systems. This technological innovation (TRL3 to TRL6) will allow soilless cultivation of densely sown crops. Technology transfer will allow for uptake at manufacturers and growers level. Densely sown crops are important for the local economy in the program area. Increasing demand steers production. Development of a novel hydroponic system for densely sown crops in greenhouses, will enable producers throughout the program area to address the challenges they currently face regarding efficient management of crop cultivation and capacity to deal with diseases that reduce yield/quality and revenue. The system will provide for an environmentally and economically viable cultivation, sustainable for producers and more aesthetically and hygienically acceptable to consumers.
- base infrastructure to pilot, test and optimize the cultivation of densely sown vegetables using hydroponic-based systems installed in BE, UK and NL; the design for this base infrastructure will be derived from the small-scale prototyping and testing phase
- growers guide with cultivation advice for lamb's lettuce, spinach and rocket, addressing key parameters including climate conditions, nutrient solutions and varieties;
- technical-economic feasibility study with final design specifications, automation concepts and a profitability report;
The wide horticultural chain can benefit from these outputs. In particular, they will offer growers new opportunities to meet increasingly strict demands from legislation and retail without compromising crop yield and quality. Manufacturers will also benefit from the project outputs through supply and installation of (parts of) the system. As a result, competitiveness of businesses in the program area will increase.
Cross border approach
In some parts of the 2 Seas region, hydroponics are applied intensively for growing fruit vegetables in greenhouses, and are gradually being implemented for leafy vegetables such as lettuce. Flanders has experience with Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) for growing lettuce, and the Netherlands with Deep Flow Technique (DFT). There are also differences in cultivation experiences for densely sown crops: Flanders focuses on lamb’s lettuce, the UK on watercress, baby spinach and rocket, and in the Netherlands, baby spinach is the most cultivated crop of the four.
Yet, the challenges are similar. To develop a new system for densely sown crops, knowledge of and experience from NFT and DFT, and cultivation of different densely sown crops is required. Cross-border cooperation will facilitate existing and future knowledge-exchange and sharing of experience. Demonstration of optimised prototypes in all 3 locations will boost the grower’s trust throughout the program area.
The development of a hydroponic cultivation system fit for use by growers of densely sown vegetable crops is based on information from testing and exchange. This past year the focus has been on small scale experiments in search of defining the specific technological requirements for the hydroponic system. Like most projects, the Covid-19 crisis did cause some delay in testing. The two major causes were the unavailbility of test locations for months (UK) and delivery issues (mandatory closure of production facilities) in Belgium, so prototypes could not be developed and shipped to the partners. During summer and autumn partners worked hard to make up for the lost time, by testing several prototypes simulationously. The tests were done at the partner organisations and included regular feedback by breeders, growers and manufacturers via several (international) co-creation groups. These were held on-line in Belgium, the Netherlands and UK and enabled cross border exchange. Our French stakeholders attended the international co-creation group in September, as did some of our Dutch, English and Belgian stakeholders. Regular digital brainstorms helped partners exchange knowlegde on the growing proces and challenges encountered. This resulted in some of the research being conducted earlier than anticipated, as insights were needed to improve the system.
The first phase of testing demonstrated that the tested crops cannot be treated equally in hydroponic cultivation systems. Technical specifics vary based on the crop sown. E.g. seedsizes and needed meshsize, light regimes, ideal temperatures, composition of nutrient solution etc. Germination, plantgrowth, algea growth, colouration: all aspects are monitored closely by the partners. In 2021 partners are continuing their small scale experiments, in order to find the neccesary technical requirement for each individual crop. These tests are conducted in both growing chambers (NL, UK, BE), in greenhouses (NL, BE) and polytunnels (UK). All prototypes are developed by Howest. The next steps include discussing the prelimenary results within the co-creation groups and between all partners. In the summer of 2021 larger scale pilot systems will be up and running in the UK, the NL and BE. The pilot system will be a flexible, being able to incorporate new knowledge and insights so that the system can constantly improve.